Global Malaysia Series #1: The Business Of Palm Oil



Watch 17.13 ...."for our industry, we need to be detailed because as you might have heard... If you don't walk the fields, if you don't talk to the trees, I think the trees are not going to produce. Ha! Ha! Ha!" Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd (KLK) chief executive officer Tan Sri Lee Oi Hian was actually making a reference to the article I wrote 8 years ago about the legend of IOI Group's Tan Sri Lee Shin Cheng singing to his trees. 


It all started with that fateful field trip to Sagil Estate, Johor in 2005. Back then, I was still new to the palm oil sector and I had no idea what to report from field trips. I went up to one of my editors then, Shahriman Johari and asked for his advice.

Shahriman looked up from his computer screen and told me in a straight face, "People have said Tan Sri Lee talks to his trees. See if this is true..."

And so I went along to the field trip with this unusual mission at the back of my mind. Throughout the 2-day trip, journalists and stock analysts asked IOI Group Tan Sri Lee questions on crude palm oil price trend, soya oil price trend, oil extraction rates, acquisition plans, company borrowings and forecast results.

When all 'serious' questions were asked, senior journalists and stock analysts made their way to the buffet tables, leaving younger and inexperienced reporters, like me, to face the stern looking Lee in awkward silence.

After what seemed like five minutes of polite smiles and nods, I took a gamble and asked Lee if he loved his oil palm trees. He hesitated and looked around. I held my breath and thought to myself, "Oh uh... I'm in big trouble now."

To my surprise, he replied, "Yes, of course. My trees are my girlfriends. Each one has her own characteristics. If one produces well, I will tell her 'I love you'," he grins, adding that if a tree is not productive he would tell her that he will give her six to nine months to bear the quota of fruits. "Surprisingly, they tend to bloom to expectation," he said.

Three years later in 2008, Sime Darby chairman Tun Musa Hitam acknowledged IOI Group Tan Sri Lee's singing of Tamil songs has worked wonders on oil palm yields. He then said he was seriously thinking of "asking the boys at Sime Darby to sing Indonesian songs to the trees too."